Tag Archives: storytelling

Cinema Sins

There’s a YouTube channel I admit (with some guilt) I find entertaining.

Cinema Sins posts clips from various movies, and they count up the number of terrible clichés, plot holes, and cheesy lines to give the movie a score. Needless to say, this game is like golf: the less points the better.

Their slogan is that no movie is without sins.

I watched the “review” of Divergent, which did not fair well. And while some of the critique might be valid, I began to wonder about what exactly they’re going for.

On the positive side, I can appreciate the criticism as a useful tool. As an aspiring novelist, they show great examples of what I might be doing wrong–instances where I might think “Wow, that’s cool” but then realize it was cool in those 15 action movies that each used the same scenario, plot twist, or snappy retort.

But on the other hand, I have to ask: What movie are these guys putting out there? What great amazing story are they writing?

Because it’s easy to sit back and look at everything Hollywood releases, tallying up sins and saying “Oh that’s so lame, that’s so overdone.” But it’s another story when you’re trying to create something unique, something special. (And arguably none of our stories are really all that unique. Most follow structures we’ve learned from other stories.)

Regardless of how many "sins" Cinema Sins finds in your plot.
Regardless of how many “sins” Cinema Sins finds in your plot.

I can’t help but think of the Roosevelt quote, always a great reminder:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

So there.

 

Ok, now I’m gonna go back into my draft and change some overdone plot twists.

Elements of Critique: Perspective

Elements of Critique: Perspective

Now that the A-Z blog challenge is done (thank God!), I thought I’d return to the theme I chose in order to cover three aspects that came up during the month of blogging. I’ll hit on perspective, participation, and planning, so that with the A-Z plus three posts, anyone could in theory organize and run their own critique group.

Three more “P” posts, for the price of none.

One of the keys to good criticism, noted in my ‘C’ post, is that it’s constructive. Critique is not about tearing down a fellow writer until they put up their pen or delete Word from their computer. It’s about working together building ourselves up into the best writers we are capable of becoming.

With any construction project, there are plans and considerations. Some of these will involve the overall style and aesthetics of the future building. Some will involve the math and physics required to ensure stable and lasting architectural integrity.

The math and physics are going to be objective – not contingent on anyone’s opinion. Will a support of such size hold up a roof of such weight? Will a foundation only so deep be able to bear the load of a building with so many storeys? There are equations involved, and these have to follow the rules of math in order to determine correct answers.

The aesthetics are subjective – open to interpretation and based in opinion. These probably involve the input of a designer and the owner. Will a large open welcome center suit our purposes? Would the project be better with a more curved appearance to the structure? Does the design suit the intended purpose? There’s no math for this.

Critique is exactly the same. But to offer good critique we need to understand the difference between what is objective and what is subjective. How we offer advice changes based on this distinction.

“I feel like perhaps some words are missing in this sentence, and it’s just my opinion but you seemed to jump from past tense into what felt like present tense, so maybe that’s a problem?”

I might as well say “Well, you know, I feel like two plus two kind of equals four.”

There’s no need to be overly careful about rules of grammar and punctuation. If we lack confidence, we can do a touch of research and make sure we’ve got the right idea about how the items in question should be formatted or used. Then we can speak objectively – with authority – about the use of a particular punctuation mark, breach of point of view, or format of a sentence.

Of course we cannot present objective critique in a cruel manner. We’re there to build up, not tear down. But if the math is wrong and the structure is inherently flawed, the building will collapse without corrective action.

So if I have the time to do a good critique, I will not only mark something as wrong but provide an explanation or reminder about what’s proper, based on objective rules. I may also present a helpful method for finding errors before submission.

When I do this, I take into account that the solution I see may not be the only option. And since I’m offering possible solutions, this is where my subjectivity starts to come in. “You could separate this into two shorter sentences or use a semi-colon to link the two parts. I’d suggest…”
This is where we start getting into the design of the building. What will look good? When talking about our writing, however, we each have an individual voice or style we follow. If my critique of someone’s writing turns their piece into my voice, then something has gone wrong. I want to savor and enjoy the distinctive “design” of their piece, so I tone back and make subjective suggestions in areas where no true rule applies.

We can’t critique tastes like a math teacher grading a paper. What I see as an awkward sentence may not be to everyone else. My thoughts on what is subtle or what is “authentic” dialogue, my take on whether a hook works well, these are subjective things. When a particular phrase seems weak, or I think something might be clearer in a different order, that’s my opinion.

I have to take into account my familiarity or lack thereof with the writer’s intended genre or audience. My style and tastes might not fit what is expected of their kind of writing.

Our writings are our babies, our darlings. If I say the baby’s ugly, then that puts the writer on the defensive. Defensive ears are notoriously unreceptive to advice. And while I could hope that everyone would be humble enough to receive input from even the most insensitive source, the fact is, we shut down or start to argue our side when we feel our writing is under attack.

So I try to offer my subjective input as an encouraging suggestion, expressed as “just my take on this,” or “this is what worked for me.” I won’t state my opinion as a fact like “this is a mistake you must correct.”

Recognizing the difference between what’s objective and subjective permits me to sound authoritative and encouraging at the same time. Hopefully that keeps defenses down and allows the writer to get the most from the critique.

Of course, we as critiquers can only do so much to communicate helpful feedback. The recipient has to be willing to receive. That’s the subject of the next add-on post: being a good critique group participant.

Elements of Critique: Zaftig

Here we are at the end of the A to Z Blog Challenge. This year, April caught me by surprise.

On March 30th or 31st, I saw a reference to the challenge and remembered how “fun” it was last year. I toyed with the idea of participating, and realized I could do a series on critiquing writing. Topics sprang to mind in a torrent, and I prepared my entire A to Z list in minutes…

Except for the Z.

What writing concept or element to critique falls under Z? I know, I can suggest people write “zany” things or whatever, but that felt lame.

I popped the Merriam-Webster dictionary app open and scrolled to Z to see if anything sparked an idea. And “zaftig” is the first thing that caught my eye, because I have no idea what that means.

“Zaftig” means (of a woman) slightly fat in an attractive way, pleasingly plump. A safe term might be “full-bodied.”

It comes by way of Yiddish from the German word for “sap.” Think of it as that which sets dead wood and wooden characters apart from something alive and meaningful.

Full-bodied, lively characters and meaningful articles are something I look for in critique.

For non-fiction, zaftig might mean that interesting angles are covered. When writing, I might have several analogies or personal recollections that would fit a given topic. But which of them are unique to the average reader? Which would present the most vivid picture?

I’ve tried over the course of this project to come up with examples that capture a reader’s interest as well as communicate a thought. I want to write something full-bodied and thorough, not emaciated and weak.

Word choice can reflect a “zaftig” mindset. Does the writer choose plain vanilla phrases to give the bare minimum detail, or do they select powerful words that evoke imagery and feeling in the reader? The letters on our screens and the ink on our pages should be ‘sappy’ — carrying life and energy to the reader.

And characters, most of all, embody this “zaftig” concept I look for when critiquing fiction. Are the actors in a story realistic people with dreams and goals or are they cardboard placeholders meant to call up a stereotype that will be forgotten one page later?

Our main characters usually get a lot of attention and thought. But what about the villains? Are they full-bodied, three-dimensional, reasonable and logical in their motivations? Or are they Snidely Whiplash, twisting an oiled mustache and cackling while tying yet another damsel in distress to the train tracks?

The villain should have some kind of redeeming or likable quality. It’s a rare person who has none at all. They should be as believable and thought-out as the hero, or they look like a caricature instead of a character.

Supporting characters are important too. Fictional worlds deserve to be populated with zaftig people, not the literary equivalent of Photoshopped crowds.

When I was young, my pastor always wore a three-piece suit to church. That was the only way I could picture him. One Saturday we drove past his house and I saw him mowing his yard in a T-shirt and shorts. I couldn’t believe my eyes; I thought he should be mowing in a suit because that’s the only way I knew him.

That’s what can happen to our supporting characters. They become one facet of their personality, to the exclusion of everything else. I think of friends with whom I only interact on Facebook or social media, compared to those with whom I experience the ups and downs of life in person. I “know” the Facebook friend, but I only see one dimension of them. It’s nothing like being face-to-face on a regular basis.

So I look for that character depth when critiquing writing. Or more likely, I note its absence.

For example, in my current project, I had two women watching the protagonist attempt to use divine healing. One was the motherly, kind-hearted, supportive encourager. The other was the scowling, stern, follow-the-rules, dissatisfied stickler. And they were going to maintain those roles for the foreseeable future.

They became wooden and lifeless, cardboard stereotypes.

When someone pointed this out to me, I realized I could switch their roles.

In a later scene, both women witness the protagonist using forbidden magic in an attempt to save lives. The motherly encourager becomes horrified and rejects the protagonist. The scowling stickler sees the pragmatic value of the deed, and approves of the choice. It’s a minor change, but it keeps the characters from staying in established and expected ruts.

Our writing is meant to take the reader somewhere, and our story arcs should force characters down a new path: Not one populated with faceless Facebook “friend” caricatures and deep grooves dug into the well-traveled route, but one with full-bodied characters and evocative writing to blaze an uncut trail into the unknown.

That sounds lively and interesting. That’s what I’m looking for, from those whose work I critique, and even more, from myself.

Thanks for hanging with me for these A to Z entries. On top of these posts, I have three extra elements of critique I will be adding to this series, covering the difference between subjective and objective advice, being a good participant, and the basics of an orderly critique group.

Elements of Critique: Adverbs, Why?

Never Gonna Give You Up.

Nickelback, or Creed.

Amy’s Baking Company. (It’s from an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares that created a viral outlash on the Internet.)

Some things are universally reviled. (Seriously, the baking company episode is amazing and horrible. My wife is watching it now and like a train wreck, I cannot avert my eyes.)

While compiling my list for the A to Z, I saw ‘y’ and the first thing that came to mind was the much-hated ‘-ly’ of adverbs.

Soon after joining a critique group, I discovered that “-ly” words have a huge target painted on them. They were one of several problems highlighted with comments and lengthy explanations from our hostess. At first, I thought, “Surely they’re not so bad. I can occasionally use them, right? Sometimes they help clearly and fully communicate the meaning of the sentence.”

I was wrong, or at least too optimistic.

It’s so bad that I find submission guidelines for magazines with statements like the following:

We do not use adverbs in our magazine. If a sentence is written with an adverb, rewrite the sentence with a stronger verb.

The general rule is that adverbs are a form of telling instead of showing. I feel I’m breaking my ‘R’ post of repetition since I talked about showing versus telling already. But adverbs show up so often, and receive so much negative feedback, I wanted to devote an entire post to this subject.

The problem is, using an adverb tries but fails to tell the reader how a thing is done, which makes for weak writing and less interesting reading.

If a character is walking slowly, writing “walking slowly” doesn’t give the reader a picture. It tells the reader how a thing was done, and does a poor job of it. What does that even mean? How slow is “slow” in this case? Is it a careful kind of slow, a stumbling gait, or a casual stroll?

“Snow fell quickly” is… something, I suppose. My mind pictures more snowflakes fluttering down to the ground with the adverb present, sure. But is it a blizzard? Is it blinding? Is it building up or melting away, weighing down branches and covering rooftops? Who knows?

“The wind blew strongly in Lyllithe’s face” tells nothing. Is she uncomfortable or is she hypothermic? Does she struggle to make headway? Are her clothes flapping with each gust?

On the other hand, “Lyllithe stumbled through knee-deep snow, shivering and rubbing her arms in the driving wind” is showing the reader a picture through action.

The difference is obvious. So I look for adverbs when I critique, and point out these problems where applicable. On my better days, I’ll provide a suggested verb or two.

The magazine’s standard is a good rule of thumb: When an adverb feels necessary, consider if there’s any other stronger verb instead. There are exceptions, and we’ll see adverbs in published material. (I even used an ‘-ly’ adverb in my fourth line.)

These don’t have to be forbidden, but they should at least be rare. After all, even “Never Gonna Give You Up” is good sometimes for a laugh or a rick-roll.

Elements of Critique: Unclear

Imagine trying to get anywhere if directions on Google Maps had a “shuffle” setting like an iPod.

“Turn down 10th street then drive 5 miles on Highway 20? How do I get to 10th? I’m still on Washington, I have to get on Highway 20 to even reach 10th.”

Writing is like a road map for the mind. This is particularly true of non-fiction pieces with an academic style. The writer is giving the reader directions to follow the story or topic.

If the reader hits a giant Detour sign and wonders how they arrived at this point, something has become unclear. Good critique looks for lack of clarity in a submission.

Sadly, this is one area where “no news is good news.” It’s more difficult to search for good transitions and sufficient descriptions than to note their absence. I don’t think of all the times I’ve driven home with no delays, but every time road construction blocks my path, I remember it.

I’ll give some examples of what I look for, to ensure my point is clear.

For fiction, this may mean when we encounter whatever weird creative stuff is in the story, the writer needs to provide some additional description or information. The writer knows the world and can picture all the details of setting. Significant thought has gone into the backstory of each character, giving them real motivations and reasonable goals. The writer understands the rules of the society or culture and how those impact the scene.

The reader knows none of that until it’s put onto the page in a way the reader can understand.

Any time the writing slams the brakes on my reading and makes me ask what’s happening, I note that reaction in critique. That’s not what we want for our eventual readers, so it deserves the writer’s attention.

Similarly, with non-fiction, if the topic is unfamiliar or the knowledge presented is obscure, more description or background may be necessary. That will depend on the purpose of the writing and the audience for whom it is written.

A pamphlet might cover a problem with a broad brush approach, touching on many things while not going into deep detail. This will differ from a self-help book with entire chapters devoted to each symptom of a problem. A persuasive speech will make its case and potentially overlook the reasonable counter-arguments that might weaken the writing.

The rule of tight writing is to include only what the story or piece needs. Unclear writing might happen with both too much and too little information. It’s hard to define boundaries here. When critiquing, I have to trust my inner reader a bit and go with how a piece feels to me. If nothing else, that might be small feedback that confirms what the writer has heard from others.

Beyond “too little” or “too much,” there’s a bigger issue: a lack of transition.

Whether it’s an action scene, a detective chasing down a lead, or an article giving advice on writing critique, there has to be a sense of following a trail, going down a path, getting to the point. Writing can’t bounce around like a super ball.

When writing jumps from one point to another, that’s a place to highlight for critique.

Try having a conversation with a teenager. Their minds race and their mouths jump from topic to topic without any seeming rhyme or reason.

“I went skating with my friend – no, not Amanda, it was Vickie – hey did you know that Vickie got first place in the band competition? I want to learn to play the flute. Did I tell you about the sleepover tonight? I didn’t? Oh. I need five bucks for a gift for Tiffany. Who’s Tiffany? She’s Johnny’s sister. Who’s Johnny? Ugh… I told you about him last week. Can I go skating tomorrow? I need five bucks for that too.”

There’s a thought process that takes the teen to each of those points. But we can’t see it, so we can’t follow it. The same is true of writers and readers. The reader can only follow what the writer gives them as road signs and directions.

A good transition touches on both what came before and what’s coming next. It connects where we were to where we are now. Crossing that bridge in writing tells the reader the previous point has been made, and it gives them an idea of what’s next.

The purpose of writing is to communicate thought–a multitude of individual thoughts, in fact, arranged neatly in a logical progression into either a story (fiction) or a presentation of facts or opinions (non-fiction).

In critique, when bad directions, detours, and orange cones block the flow of those thoughts, make it clear to the writer. That way, the bad news becomes good news. The error can be fixed, the path smoothed out, so that future readers can take that same road trip and simply enjoy a clear view of the scenery.

Elements of Critique: Show vs. Tell

“You never show me that you love me anymore!”

In some marriages (not mine of course, no, never) the couple sometimes discuss the status of their romance, and the above quote can (in rare cases) spill out into the open.

The man–assuming it’s the man being told this–will probably try to deflect the conversation with, “But I told you I loved you just the other month, and on our anniversary a couple years ago.”

We can safely doubt the success of that argument. Usually the complaint is coupled with examples of actions undone, such as “You don’t bring me flowers,” or “You haven’t done that thing I asked you to do every week for the last six months,” or perhaps “Will you stop typing on that stupid blog for a few minutes and stay awake long enough to have a conversation more than two grunts with me?”

(Note: No specific examples from my experience were utilized in the above paragraph.)

A similar complaint may sometimes arise: “You never tell me that you love me!”

The man being told this, in this case–although again it is wild speculation to assume it’s the man–may resort to defenses such as “But I did X, Y and Z.” In other words, “But I showed you how important you are to me by doing some action.”

Yet sometimes, a person likes to be simply told a thing they need to hear.

While I would never resort to critiquing such marital dysfunction–being far too humble and also unfamiliar with those frustrations common to less blissful pairings–I choose this eminently relatable example to demonstrate today’s topic of Showing vs. Telling.

There’s a simple truth in the above analogy: “Actions speak louder than words.” Most of what we need as readers (and what to look for when critiquing a piece) are the actions characters do which reveal their thoughts, motives, feelings, and goals. The default rule among writers is “Show, Don’t Tell.”

Here’s an example of hyper-telling to drive the point home:

The chill made Jo uncomfortable because it was so cold. Thankfully, she was so mad that she hardly noticed. She was so mad in fact that she was infuriated. There was lots of snow.

This should pain our inner editor to read.

Jo could shiver. Her teeth could chatter. The writer could describe her breath coming out in clouds around her face. Is snow still falling? Could it be?

Jo could clench her fists, or stomp around in the snow. She could mutter an imaginary argument with the object of her anger. Or maybe her thought might show us that she’s ignoring the cold because she’s seething and burning inside.

Any showing is better than the example provided.

Showing lets the reader play amateur psychologist and decipher characters’ personalities from their outward actions. Showing tells the reader what they need to know, without merely telling them a fact like a textbook.

Even my dripping sarcasm in the analogy at the beginning of this post tells the reader something without simply coming out and stating a fact. Humor and sarcasm can be a way of showing. (Warning: I do not recommend this method during arguments like those in the opening analogy.)

The default rule is correct. I look for writing that shows exceptionally well, and highlight that for praise. I also look for writing that merely tells when showing would better support the story and invest me in the characters. That I highlight for rewriting with a suggestion or example.

However, “Show, Don’t Tell” is only the default rule. There are always exceptions. First, some things aren’t important enough to the story or to establishing the scene to merit showing. Second, when dealing with anything supernatural or out of the ordinary expected experience of a reader, some telling is merited.

In fantasy and sci-fi, for example, a character may use technology or special powers unique to the story world and thus unfamiliar to the reader. A good way of doing this is to adjust the rule and play Show and Tell. The reader gets a description of what this mysterious thing looks like or what happens when it is used, and then they get a snippet of information about it.

Something similar applies to unfamiliar concepts in other writing. A religious piece might need to explain some of the theology or background information supporting the provided description. A non-fiction piece might relate the unknown new to something the average reader would understand.

Whle this is “telling” and thus arguably forbidden, it helps ground the reader in the reality of the setting. When I critique and find myself reading a showy description that leaves me clueless about what just happened, that’s something to note for the writer’s attention and revision. Likewise, when I find a useful tidbit of telling coupled with showing, I try to highlight that and praise the writer’s effort.

Because, as always, critiquing is about building up more skillful and confident writers. A thorough critique doesn’t just tell them “Good job.” It shows them what works, what doesn’t, and where to go from there.

Where are we going from here on the A to Z blog challenge? Well, I feel like a Time Lord writing this, but tomorrow in the future, we get to visit the present and the past. Grab your sonic screwdriver and charge up the flux capacitor. Get in your T.A.R.D.I.S. or deLorean, because things are going to get tense.

Elements of Critique: Repetition

While going through this A to Z challenge, I’ve had to check my list often to make sure I haven’t written about something too similar to each new day’s post. When I originally organized the list, I ran into a couple topics that were almost repeats of another day. No reader is going to want to read the same thing a week later. We pick up on overused words and subjects. We notice when the writer is saying something they’ve already said.

That’s why I look for repetition when critiquing a piece of writing.

Repetition and overuse draw attention to the writing instead of keeping it on the story. Our writing is like a camera lens by which the reader can see the world we set before them. Repetition (like many other mistakes) is a smudge on the lens itself. We fix our eyes on the dirt as we read, and the image of the story behind it is obscured.

Consider these fairly egregious examples, and note that rarely is this issue so obvious:

He faced her and she noted his long face with a nose that jutted out of his face.

Flaming arrows rained down like flaming shooting stars, blanketing the area with flames.

Any time the same word is used twice in the same sentence, I want to rewrite it. With certain nouns (names, terms related to the topic at hand), this might be unavoidable. But when a descriptor is given twice in a paragraph, it feels like too much to me.

Sometimes the repetition is a character’s action or response to a situation:

“She cocked her head” (after having done so twice in as many pages).
“He furrowed his brow” (again, for the fifth time this chapter).
“She bit her lip” (as she always does in literally every tense situation in the book).

Reading out loud helps me catch some of these in my own work. “She cocked her head… wait, I just read that a few lines ago…”

The thesaurus can help here, so long as the selected replacements fit.

There’s one more area to watch out for, especially for fiction: the start of paragraphs. When a section involves a lot of action on the part of a character, the proper name or appropriate pronoun may find its way to the beginning of several sentences and paragraphs without the writer’s notice.

Lyllithe turned and faced her accuser… followed by a few sentences showing impending conflict.
Lyllithe ducked under his attack and sprang for the door… then some fight scene excitement for a couple lines.
Lyllithe slammed the crossbar down and felt the thump of his body when it hit… and this would make three in a row.

“She she she” can happen just as easily, and also occurs within individual paragraphs. For first person, the danger is compounded since there’s no real need for the POV character’s name. Thus we might see, “I this, I that, I some other thing.”

In writing clear, active sentences, we’ll see a lot of them start with a character’s name or a pronoun. That’s unavoidable.

The only cure for this I am aware of is rewriting to mix in description, dialogue, or POV character thoughts. Try anything to break up the monotony.

The one feeling we’re not trying to create in the reader is a sense of déjà vu.

Elements of Critique: Leads

I often joke about frustrating circumstances with my kids (or my fellow Airmen), claiming in a gruff Drill Instructor voice that their suffering “builds character.”

Oddly enough, that’s a truth about the relationship between plot and (at the very least) the Lead character in a piece of fiction. Stories are essentially about characters and how they change – or not – in response to events thrown their way.

What should one look for in a lead character? They usually have to be relatable and interesting. Relatable doesn’t mean that in order to read the tale of an assassin, I have to have killed someone in the past, of course. Relatable in this case means communicating to the reader a sense of who this main character is, whether through thoughts, powerful actions, or displays of emotion. I need something I can connect with, something from which to draw insight.

And I’m of the opinion that the lead must not only be relatable but interesting. I was going to say “likeable” except I think that’s not quite true and I always wonder whether the word has an ‘e’ before the ‘-able’ suffix. (Merriam-Webster shows it as a variant of ‘likable’ so I guess it’s OK either way.)

I listened to a Writing Excuses podcast the other day that discussed what readers look for in a lead character. They did such a good job that I’m simply going to summarize their point while providing the link.

When creating a lead character, a writer has three tools to utilize to secure reader interest: sympathy, competency, and proactivity.

Some of the writing books I’ve read claim we should go for sympathy. Paint the lead as an underdog, or show what a nice person they are, and readers will take the bait. Everyone roots for the little guy and the selfless hero or heroine. When Harry Potter gets treated like garbage at the start of the series, we immediately want to see him succeed. We’re invested.

But what if I want a lead who isn’t the nice guy? Let’s go back to that assassin earlier. Assassins are notoriously low on the sympathy totem pole. But they can be very interesting characters to read about, more likely than not because they’re competent.

Think of James Bond. He’s not particularly sympathetic. In a way, neither is he very proactive. Almost any Bond movie consists of him being called in to fix a problem and respond to whatever the villain is doing. It’s rarely Bond initiating the action. So why do we watch? Because his competency slider is turned up off the charts, and that makes it oh so fun to see how he handles all the twists and curves thrown at him.

The other option to consider is proactivity, and for this I’ll point to Heath Ledger’s rendition of the Joker in The Dark Knight. I know, the Joker wasn’t the lead. But he’s a good example to point out what this looks like.

Joker isn’t reliably competent as he carries out his schemes. In fact, many of them fall apart even if Batman doesn’t directly stop them. But the Joker does make a point of doing things (in fact, that’s one of his speeches explaining his motivation), and the things he does are so crazy and so unique that they hold the viewer’s interest. “What is that guy up to?” We just have to know. So we watch to see how things unfold, even though this guy isn’t super competent, and certainly gets no sympathy.

As they say in the podcast, the trick (and the part to consider in critique) is considering how to adjust the story to the lead character based on these qualities. A sympathetic but often-incompetent character might at least try really hard to do the right thing. Think Spider-Man trying to figure out how to be a super-hero. Or they might be the underdog carried along by the proactivity and competence of those around them, like early Harry Potter.

The more sliders get turned up, the more the story needs outside conflict to keep interest going. When we’re watching Superman, who is sympathetic, proactive, and competent all rolled into one, we need some serious external conflict thrown at him that a different type of lead character wouldn’t require.

So, to sum up, when I look at the Lead, I try to see how the writer has used those tools. Am I supposed to like this character? Should I be impressed by them? And then I consider whether the conflict appears tuned appropriately to the qualities of the lead. Keeping all this in mind helps me point out where something doesn’t seem to fit quite right, or where something works well.

I recently had a couple chapters reviewed by a professional editor, and one comment spoke to this: “The lead character is sympathetic. I like her, I’m rooting for her.”

The idea of someone waving a little “Lyllithe” flag pleases me greatly. It’s what we all want for our leads when terrible burdens and crushing trials beat them down in our stories. And we know that’s going to happen.

It has to. That’s what builds character.

Elements of Critique: Intensity

Yesterday’s post on critiquing hooks talked about looking for a device that creates reader interest and pressing questions at the beginning and end of a piece.

Today, I’m considering what to look for in the middle. Hooks might get me started, but something has to keep me going. There has to be some level of intensity in the piece.

Elmore Leonard put it this way: “Try to leave out the parts readers skip.”

When critiquing a fiction piece or personal account, I’ll look for the conflict between characters and their circumstances. (I could have used that as my ‘c’ post, but constructive criticism is so essential to get right, it trumped conflict for that position.)

A character may struggle with internal conflict due to mutually exclusive values. “I know what I should do… but I know what I want to do to that conniving, rotten scoundrel…”

Interpersonal conflict should be present especially in dialogue. Otherwise, why pit those two characters against each other in a scene? If Bob and Jim are chatting and agreeing about everything, who wants to read that? They should have differing viewpoints on the subject in question, leading to a verbal clash, which keeps intensity high. If they don’t disagree, I suggest using different characters who do.

There’s also environmental conflict, where some circumstance or outside force is creating trouble for the characters in a piece. Maybe that’s an army invading their nation; maybe it’s an impending natural disaster. Something needs to create a constant pressure in order to sustain that intensity. If the reader is breathing easy for a batch of characters, then something should change fast to put them back into peril.

Finally, there might be thematic conflict where the characters and events serve to compare and contrast two ideas or positions. “Justice versus mercy” might be such an example, and for that I’ll point to Les Miserables. Societal ideals or even competing societies might clash to create that intense conflict the reader needs to keep interested.

Truthfully, in a long-length work, all of these can coexist. In a shorter piece, perhaps only one or two, done well, will fit.

The key with intense conflict is ensuring stakes are high. The character’s internal decision must have a profound impact on her life. The arguments between characters should have consequences beyond just a potential loss of friendship. The outside forces creating environmental conflict must matter. There must be a true threat to life as these characters know it.

That’s what I look for in a fiction piece.

In non-fiction writing, it’s more difficult to maintain intensity. Melodrama should be avoided, so everything can’t be the end of the world. “If I didn’t overcome my fear of public speaking, the bomb would explode, destroying the United Nations headquarters and plunging the world into war!”

No, not so much.

In order to consider the intensity of a non-fiction piece, I look for the above conflicts where applicable. Some writing might include true stories where those conflicts can shine and maintain interest.

But more often, I look for the “So what?” to the subject. What is the reader going to get out of this? Does this piece convince me as a hypothetical reader that it has something to say to me, something I need to hear?

If it’s a personal account of overcoming adversity, was the obstacle challenging enough that I can relate my struggles to the writer’s? If it’s an article about health or lifestyle, am I compelled by what the writer says on the subject? Would I even consider changing my ways?

Conflict comes into play here too, but it’s not quite like anything previously mentioned. The conflict for non-fiction is between a writer’s passion and a reader’s apathy. The writing has to make whatever points are necessary to persuade someone to care. It’s like a dialogue in a way, where the writer may have to assume and counter some of the arguments the disinterested reader might make.

No writing is going to be all things to all people, of course. Hoping so would be foolish.

But the biggest facet to intensity in writing is that the piece must mean a lot to the writer, so their passion shines through. Without that, to paraphrase Leonard, we might as well leave out the whole thing.

We’re a third of the way through the A to Z challenge. Thanks for joining me on what started for me as a spontaneous journey. Once I considered how passionate I am about critique group, it became easy to write the series – further proof of the point I’m trying to make in this post.

I’ve hit on several potential problems thus far. So the next two posts will take a turn toward the positive, starting with consideration of the journey we’re all on as writers.

Author Blog Hop

At the start of April, Angela D. Meyer posted my bio and picture on her blog as part of a “blog hop” where writers trade info to increase exposure.

Angela has been a core part of Omaha WordSowers since I joined two years ago. She’s part of the fantastic critique group (where I’m getting the ideas I’m using for this year’s A to Z blog challenge on Elements of Critique). My wife and I attended her book release party, when Where Hope Starts first went on sale. And I had the privilege of being one of her readers for her exciting second book’s manuscript. Though publishing her first book and working on the second have forced her to reduce involvement in the writer’s group, Angela still helps run some of the WordSowers social media.

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Here’s her information, in her own words.

Angela D. Meyer lives in Omaha, NE with her husband of more than 22 years. She homeschools their daughter and recently graduated their son who is now a Marine. She has taught Bible class for over 35 years and served for almost three years on the leadership team of her local Christian writers group. She loves God, her family, the ocean, good stories, connecting with friends, taking pictures, quiet evenings and a good laugh. Someday she wants to ride in a hot air balloon and vacation by the sea. Her first novel, Where Hope Starts, shares the story of God’s redemption in the middle of a crumbling marriage.

The blog hop also came with four questions. These are my answers, not Angela’s.

1. What am I working on?
A fantasy novel called Refraction. You can see chapter 1 here.

Lyllithe Aulistane is the adopted daughter of her town’s senior religious leader, the Eldest of the Abbey. She’s also a Ghostskin – a pale half-breed of human and air elemental. Her Gracemark and training with the Abbey call her toward a pacifistic life of ministry and healing as a Devoted. Her heritage and passion drive her toward adventure, using the power of the elements to prevent harm instead of mending the wounded. And her curiosity leads her toward an unknown source of power that beckons even as it repulses her.
While she struggles to choose her path, she meets resistance at every turn. The Abbey rejects those deemed impure, and the Arcanists demand intense discipline. Though Lyllithe finds allies along the way, there are many more who seek her life. From the lowest highwayman to the highest political levels in the capital city of Aulivar, Lyllithe and her friends become valuable pawns in a game they cannot see.
But when the stakes rise to include the lives of an entire city, Lyllithe can’t afford to make a wrong move.
“From daybreak ’til the sun goes down, Devoted shall I be.”
Devoted, yes… but to what?

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I’m writing for the mainstream audience, not the Christian market. However, I am employing Christian concepts behind the magic systems, political/cultural/religious organizations, and overall world theme. Essentially I’m aiming to write a fantasy novel that fits a Christian worldview without preaching to its audience.

3. Why do I write what I do?
I love communication. It’s my job in the Air Force, but it’s also a hobby. The idea that a writer can create a scene and somehow transfer that thought near-directly into the mind of a reader is powerful stuff. Being a Christian, I of course hope to communicate some measure of biblical truth in what I write. But saying that carries so much baggage in today’s Western society, where all sorts of cultural and political issues are too polarized for any meaningful dialogue. I have good friends “on both sides of the aisle” between Democrats and Republicans, Christians and atheists, heterosexuals and homosexuals, rationalists and idealists. I don’t want to add to that strife we see all around us. I’d rather explore some of the struggles and common experiences we can all relate to, with a heaping spoonful of grace mixed in.

4. How does my writing process work?
For a book, I need to outline. I have to map out the start, some milestones on the way, and a destination. I’ll plot out the various conflicts I see at the start, and jot down ideas for how to build on those. I write journals or practice scenes with characters until I get a good voice for them in my head.
Then I go chapter by chapter, scene by scene, until the work is done (or more likely until I see large-scale problems with the whole project, and start over, making corrections along the way).
This question is better for a writer known for finishing their projects, I think.

And now’s the part where I should have authors with whom I coordinated further hops. But I’m in the process of moving overseas, so I have not done my due diligence in getting other bloggers signed up. So unfortunately, my post is a blog flop, and this particular bit of hopping stops here.

Even so, I still wanted to give Angela’s work the attention it’s due.